A World Cup quarter-final against Argentina awaits Belgium as their much-vaunted golden generation eventually broke the resistance of a spirited USA side after a thrilling contest in Salvador.
Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku got the extra-time goals that finally undid an astounding night’s work by Tim Howard, a giant in goal for the Americans.
After all the talk about Belgium’s failure to take flight as an attacking force, they gathered real momentum in the second half although they had to wait for their reward. Three minutes into extra time substitute Lukaku brushed aside Matt Besler out on the right touchline and bore down on the American penalty box to set up De Bruyne who arrowed a low shot across Howard and inside the far post.
De Bruyne then returned the compliment for Lukaku to crash a rising shot inside Howard’s near post in the 105 minute and earn Belgium a first quarter-final appearance since Mexico 86.
Even then the drama was not over as Julian Green pulled a goal back and Thibaut Courtois saved at the feet of Clint Dempsey after a brilliantly worked free-kick put him clear. It was an incredible finish and Belgium, on this showing, should give Argentina a real game in their quarter-final on Saturday.
The question before kick-off was whether Belgium could deliver the big performance the world has been waiting for from this talented group of footballers. In its preview of the game, A Tarde, the Salvador newspaper, spoke of the quality of Belgium’s chocolates, waffles and chips, yet despite their efficiency in winning all three group games, the quality of their attacking players had yet to shine through. Here in Salvador, scene of some real goalfests already, it did.
Coach Marc Wilmots had shuffled his pack and gave teenager Divok Origi a start up front in place of Lukaku and the 19-year-old did well on only his second start. Indeed he might have had a goal inside 40 seconds when released by Kevin De Bruyne’s forward pass. The Lille teenager shrugged off a defender but Howard foiled his low strike with the first of many fine stops.
All of Belgium’s group stage goals had come after the 70 minute and they would continue that trend here against a USA team given extra defensive security by the presence of Stoke full-back Geoff Cameron in central midfield. For the first half at least this was as tight and competitive as we have come to expect from matches involving an American team who survived the group of death on the back of their impressive organisation, athleticism and a blue-collar work ethic.
They also had plenty of support inside the Arena Fonte Nova. When the US last played at a World Cup in Brazil, just one reporter followed the team to South America, the wonderfully named Dent McSkimming of the St Louis Post-Dispatch. This time round, Americans have succumbed to soccer fever and they might have had a goal to celebrate after 20 minutes when Michael Bradley and Dempsey worked a shooting chance for the latter but his snapshot inside the box went straight at Courtois.
That was actually the cue for a decent spell from Belgium which might have brought a goal when Tottenham full-back Jan Vertonghen got forward to tee up De Bruyne but he stepped inside and mishit his shot which trickled wide. At this stage, USA were holding their own and even when they lost right-back Fabian Johnson to a hamstring injury before half-time, his replacement DeAndre Yedlin soon took advantage of Eden Hazard’s failure to track back, pushing forward to set up Graham Zusi only for the midfielder to miss his kick inside the Belgium box.
It was the USA goal that led a charmed life after the restart. Mertens went close twice, notably when Howard clawed his header away from beneath the crossbar. De Bruyne and Origi both failed to get a touch on Vertonghen’s superb low ball across goal. Next Origi flashed a header against the crossbar as the pressure built.
The Belgians were exploiting space on both flanks and Vertonghen, dashing up the left, was at the heart of their good work but it remained unrewarded.
On the hour Wilmots replaced Mertens with Kevin Mirallas and the red tide kept rolling. Mirallas’ lovely weaving run gave Origi a sight of goal but Howard saved. Howard then foiled his Everton colleague Mirallas with an even better save with his feet after the excellent Origi had played him through at the 76 minute. While Courtois at the other end had only the odd long shot to worry him, Howard was performing wonders to keep Belgium out and it was hard to keep count of the saves although Origi will remember the tipover the 35-year-old produced from his fierce 20-yard drive. On this evidence Liverpool, Origi’s reported future employers, look to have some player on their hands.
With Chelsea winger Hazard finally coming into the game the pressure was unrelenting, as underlined when Kompany got on the end of a De Bruyne cross and steered the ball goalwards only for Howard to save once more. The drama was intense and it was only just beginning.
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